The world of Italian wine is a complex one for many consumers. While pairing Italian wine and food offers great pleasure, knowing what wine to pair with what food is still a mystery to many.
I recently sat down with Rachael Lowe, wine director at Spiaggia and Café Spiaggia in Chicago to learn her thoughts about this subject. Lowe has been wine director at the restaurant – considered one of the very best Italian restaurants in the country – for four years.
How do you approach your customers that don’t know Italian wine very well?
Rachael Lowe: Because Italian wine is so vast and so confusing, and there are so many varieties that many people don’t recognize, what we try and do is cross reference varieties that consumers are comfortable with varieties that they are not familiar with.
So if a guest that comes in likes Pinot Noir, my natural go-to is Etna. The wine has more tannin, but the weight and texture of the wine is very similar. It’s kind of like Pinot Noir and Grenache, but with a little Nebbiolo thrown in there for the tannin.
People are usually really happy with Etna. Same thing with people who want California Cabernet. We don’t have that, but let’s look at our Super Tuscan section. We can break down the varietals used, and discuss which wines have more extraction or oak – just so people are comfortable. Bolgheri wines are quite agreeable here as well.
In your four years, how have you changed the wine program?
When I inherited the list, it was about 95% Italian, and it still is, along with grower Champagnes. What I did was to change it was to add an “other Old World” section at the back. So nice French wines are an option, a couple Spanish, Gruner Veltliner, things like that. It’s interesting for us, as it doesn’t force us to only work with Italian wines.
I did not choose to use add any New World wines on the restaurant list. I did do that on the café list, so it’s entirely global. We did that to make each restaurant its own unique outlet. We wanted them to be more than borhter and sister restaurant.
For pairings in the main dining room, I also offer five and eight-course pairing menus. We have an Italian pairing, but we also offer a global pairing, which changes seasonally as well.
Up until this menu, it was a different country with each course. This menu it’s France vs. Italy.
Do people ask for Italian white wines such as Vermentino and Verdicchio?
It’s more of a hand sell. People definitely gravitate toward varietal wines. So wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio define their comfort zone. I choose not to put a Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio by the glass, so when we do our trainings, we can educate our staff to give them that type of wine, without exactly giving them that type of wine.
I don’t offer Chardonnay by the glass, but my Etna Bianco has some oak, French oak, so that’s what we offer for our Chardonnay placement. We use the Black Label Vermentino (from Lunae Bosoni), which is dry and minerally, so it drinks like a Sauvignon Blanc in a way. People love it, so that is like our Sauvignon Blanc.
Four our ceci pasta with pesto, I thought the Vermentino would be perfect with that, and it was. For vongole (clams) that has a little bit of spice to it, we need a more aromatic wine with that, like a Gewurztraminer.
The cool thing we have here is that chefs Tony (Mantuano) and Joe (Flamm) are really into working collaboratively regarding pairing wine and food. So they’ll prepare dishes and we’ll taste them and talk about what wines would work with them. So we’re all really working together as a team.
You offer Champagne, but what about Franciacorta? Do people ask for Franciacorta?
That is on a case by case basis. People that know Franciacorta do order it, while people that are more confortable with Champagne go for that. What’s neat about Franciacorta is that the aging requirements are often sometimes longer than Champagne, so they can get a good value as far as price ratio with Franciacorta.
I have around 5-8 diferent Franciacortas on the list, with one by the glass. We also have Ferrari Perlé from Trentino by the glass.
What sells best with Italian red wines, both by the glass and the bottle?
By the glass, the best selling are Barolo and Super Tuscan, especially the Super Tuscans people are most familiar with. If they want a Napa wine, that’s what we give them.
Barolo sells as people recognize it as a category. We always have to have that Pinot Noirish category.
By the bottle, it goes (in order of sales), Tuscany, Piedmont and then Amarone.
We don’t get much movement on Nero d’Avola and I know that Grillo (a Sicilian white made from the eponymous variety) is not something people gravitate towards. But Sicily is more popular for reds than whites.
Here are some classic Italian dishes. What Italian wine or wines do you recommend for them?
Fagiano (pheasant) – I would probably do Montefalco Rosso (a red from Umbria) or something lighter.
Lasagna- Brunello di Montalcino would be perfect. I like Sangiovese with a lot of our food. It’s not as harsh as Nebbiolo.
Risotto with mushroom – I would probably do a Nebbiolo, but perhaps also a Chardonnay.
Risotto with asparagus – That’s a tough one. Probably a Vermentino, because you’ve got the acidity.
Can you offer consumers some general advice about getting a grasp on Italian wines?
You don’t have to know all the regions, but Piedmont is known for Nebbiolo. Tuscany is known for Sangiovese; there are some very basic ways to approach it.
Then you’re going to have to know producers and styles, because the way wine is made is extremely different from one producer to another.
Knowledge of recent vintages is helpful, because something that is as aggressive as Nebbiolo is easier to drink in its youth.
Finally, what have you seen over the last 5-10 years in Italian wine that has impressed you? What have been the biggest improvements? What Italian wines should consumers look for?
I see a definite increase of quality wines being produced in southern Italy—quality wine has often been focused on as coming mostly out of Northern and Central Italy, but I see the rise of quality in wines out of regions such as Puglia, Campania and even tiny production and local indigenous varietals from Calabria.
Good value: I like to purchase wines from alternative regions of Piedmont, like Roero or Timorasso from Derthona—one can get some amazing Nebbiolo, Arneis and even Riesling from the larger regions within Piedmont that aren’t necessarily from the center of Barolo or Barbaresco. I also really enjoy drinking indigenous varietals from Puglia, such as those from LiVeli (their ‘Askos’ project).